No longer simply future-gazing, technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are becoming firmly accepted by the education sector for adding value to learning experiences.
But what next for these technologies? Here are five trends to watch out for in further and higher education.
1. Taking Hollywood to learning
The silver screen may not be the first place you’d naturally take inspiration from for learning, but the tech currently being employed in Hollywood is sure to have an impact in the classrooms and lecture halls of the future.
Summer 2015’s big blockbuster, Jurassic World called on AR while filming, using a simple iPad app by visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic to frame shots on location, in combination with a 3D structure sensor to measure camera depth. Essentially, this allowed the filmmakers to load their dinosaur models into the program and stick them onto the live image, so they could ‘see’ where the dinosaur would be, including judging depth, height and angle.
It is amazing to think that AR is being used so prominently in top production studios – and what this could mean for education. Imagine a similar tool for ‘seeing’ models in such diverse disciplines as theatre direction, lighting, product design, architecture and construction. Such an application would allow the learner to quite quickly present stunning visualisations and also help them to pre-empt any potential design problems, enabling them to explore alternatives without having to invest significant time and money in creating complex physical models.
2. Engaging, immersive experiences
VR is about to get a whole lot bigger thanks to ever better graphical representations of the real world. One of the applications that impressed me recently was a VR resource built for the road traffic agency in Australia, to dispel the myth that old, heavier cars are more protective in accidents. The experience placed you in the position of a crash test dummy, both in a modern car and one from the 1980s.
The immersion was breathtaking: on the moment of impact the display went into slow motion with shards of glass flying towards you, the crumple zone concertinaing, air bags deploying and the seat shaking with hydraulics. You walk away actually feeling how much safer newer cars are in comparison.
Another example comes from Ford for ‘experiencing’ new car models. Employing VR through gesture-based controllers, engineers and technicians are able to peel back engine components, see detailed cross sections and run quality assurance testing without having to create clay models, which commonly cost over £250,000 and take months to build.
Immersive applications such as these bring home the potential of VR within education for creating interactive worlds. Imagine, for example, being able to experience the awe and adventure of following in Howard Carter’s footsteps uncovering Tutankhamun’s tomb as an archaeology student; hearing the wind blow through a crypt sealed for millennia and being the first to take in the priceless artefacts and mysterious hieroglyphs. Photorealistic simulated environments can give learning a richness otherwise near impossible to achieve.
3. The tech tricks of Pixar – for free
Big news in the world of 3D is that the core-rendering engine used by animation giant Pixar has been made freely available to the public. Integrated into Blender open source software, it has some great features including a realistic hair renderer, denoiser, visual integrator and enhanced physical cameras that simulate the imperfections of real world cameras. Better yet, it can be downloaded with a simple registration, all for free.
This is a real step change from traditional renderer pricing models, often costing thousands of pounds per year, and opens up new opportunities for colleges and universities. Instead of purchasing a costly add-on, they’re now able to experiment with free, industry standard software. I would also encourage organisations to make it available to students, as gaining expertise in this area will provide them with important transferrable technology skills that make them more employable.
4. Science and maths can be fun!
I always struggled as a student of mathematics, with pre-conceived notions of it being dry, devoid of excitement, and not really relatable to anything in life.
The SIGGRAPH 2015 conference I attended in August turned this idea on its head. I saw academics talk through how scientific processes and algorithms could be translated into highly visual effects, from multi-resolution geometric transfer that allow animators to switch between high and low detailed dinosaur models, to the procedural animation technology that went into creating the microbots movement in Big Hero 6.
Hearing about real-life situations where theoretical maths has been applied made the subject much more digestible, and I thought how valuable this activity would be for STEM subjects. Grounding theoretical mathematics in something authentic, tangible and genuinely interesting can help to inspire students and hold their attention especially when represented in such a visual way.
Indeed, if it were to provide part of a blueprint for maths and science teaching of the future, students would surely be more engaged and likely to continue studying these subjects an in turn address the enormous skills shortage in this area.
5. Gamification comes good
In my view, the reason early educational forays into simulated and virtual environments such as Second Life weren’t more broadly successful was due to the vast chasm between the realism of these constructed worlds and that of console/PC games. Young people were used to playing graphically polished games with rich interactivity, and in comparison the education resources they encountered often didn’t live up to these high expectations.
Now, some of the big game engines, including Unreal Engine, Unity and CryEngine, offer an opportunity to develop photorealistic games and experiences for education that can transcend the traditional gap between games and learning.
These platform independent, free game engines that output to a variety of devices have big potential for breathing new life into gamification for the AR market. Unity, for example has the ability to export AR for a number of different app-based solutions including DAQRI, VUFORIA and Wikitude using plug-ins. Furthermore, because the assets created through these engines are not solely locked into proprietary AR experiences, it means they can be easily adapted, so that they can work within VR or act as standalone learning resources for web browsers.
One of my current projects AR-Sci involves developing an AR experience around photosynthesis for secondary school students, which I am hoping in turn to repurpose for use in a similar resource for a VR environment with Unreal Engine.